Kenyans barely had a chance to learn how great a leader Dr Joyce Laboso was, leave alone to find out how far-reaching a role model she could have been if she had lived longer than her 58 short years.
Sadly, she passed on quietly at Nairobi Hospital last Monday, 29th July. Cancer was the crook that stole her from us, just as it had recently taken two other outstanding local leaders, Safaricom’s CEO Bob Collymore and Kibra MP Ken Okoth.
But unbeknownst to most Kenyans, Joyce had been fighting a lonely battle against the cruel killer for many weeks.
Being a woman who valued her privacy, few people knew how this pioneering woman leader was fighting, first at the Royal Madden Hospital in UK, then in India where she went for another three weeks of treatment and finally back home where doctors had assured us that all she required was bed rest and she would be fine.
That wasn’t the case. But still, Dr Laboso has left a legacy of leadership that will stand the test of time, even though she only become a public figure in 2008 after her younger sister Lorna died in a plane crash. Lorna was the first female in the Laboso family to be elected MP for Bomet.
Yet unlike Lorna, Joyce had never aspired to be a politician. She was an academic, having trained initially to be a teacher of French (one of the first Kenyans to take up that career); then to go abroad (the first Kipsigis woman to do so) to the UK to get a Masters degree from University of Reading followed by a PhD from University of Hull. She then headed home to join the Egerton University faculty, again teaching French.
Joyce had been called by her sister’s political party, ODM to “fill the gap” in Parliament left by Lorna. They claimed it would be a way of honouring her sister’s memory if Joyce took her seat. So she ran and won the By-election by a landslide. Only then did she decide she had to fulfill that calling. It would be a matter of selfless service, to serve her people as effectively as she could.
From then on, Kenyans have seen an exemplary politician, a public servant who is in the honest business of serving her constituents. When she won a second term in Parliament, it was because she’d quickly proved herself to be a doer, not a talker.
Then after getting elected one of the three first Kenyan women elected governor, she immediately simplified the protocol. For one thing, she turned down the ‘special seat’ her predecessor, Isaac Rutto had insisted he sit on (like a throne) at every public occasion.
She also refused the title ‘Your excellency’ and simply wished to be known as Madam Governor.
And perhaps most emphatically, she refused to be flown everywhere in a chopper, unlike Mr. Ruto who insisted he needed a helicopter to travel all over his constituency. Joyce said she might be slower in showing up, but she promised her people quicker services and far less waste.
That way, she said, there would be more resources available for the development of Bomet County.
It was decisions like these that illustrated the qualitatively different sort of leadership style that Dr Laboso was giving her people. “I have no time for luxury,” she had said, alluding to Ruto’s throne.
“I want to spend my energy serving the locals,” which is exactly what she did up until the cancer’s grip on her life was more than she could bear.
But even before she got elected governor of Bomet, she had shown her metal as a national leader. In 2013 she was elected by her fellow parliamentarians to be the first female deputy Speaker of the National Assembly. Handling rowdy MPs wasn’t the easiest job to do, but Joyce handled both genders with calm poise and professionalism.
So, by the time Joyce was elected Governor of Bomet, now on a Jubilee ticket, she had proved that she was a different kind of leader, one who was principled, purposeful and committed not to politics as usual but politics as public service to the people.